The Wizards of Ahs!
All the stars, all the money and all the creative talent couldn't have put Kramer's Mad World into orbit without the help of two extraordinary groups of people -- the industry's special effects experts and the stuntmen. No motion picture can purvey actionful thrills, excitement, or the breathtakingly improbable without them. And no motion picture was ever designed to make full use of their ah-inspiring abilities than It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The title alone would be proof!
"You explain special effects this way," said Danny Lee who headed the company's crew of 20 practitioners of controlled magic and creators of non-injurious disasters. "Script writers have no limits on their imaginations. What we do is make photographable anything they come up with. All it takes is mechanical ability, a knowledge of hydraulics, pneumatics, electronics, engineering, construction, ballistics, explosives and no acquaintance with the word Impossible."
There was no major sequence in Mad World in which Lee's cunning was not employed. Some things he and his men could do with their hands tied behind their backs. Most had to be achieved from scratch by putting Bill Rose's impossible ideas on a drawing board and then building the gimmicks, gizmos and machinery to execute them.
Explode 6,000 pieces of percussion and moving fireworks around Sid Caesar and Edie Adams in the hardware store cellar; construct a working service station that would fall apart, piece by piece, as Winters battled with Stang and Kaplan; devise a fire escape on the side of an 80-foot building that was gradually breaking away from its moorings while all the stars were clambering on it; run the automobile, presumably containing Durante, one mile down a mountain highway and crash it over a 500-ffoot cliff; design and build a fire engine ladder that would flip actors one-by-one from the top of its 100-foot length.
In total there were 217 such items on the films special effects lists.
The tools of Lee's trade were a conglomeration of unworldly devices such as pemberthy siphons, gunpowders, squibs and squib hooks, dynamite caps, pulleys, cranes, compressors, popping matches, air rams, hydraulic rams, smoke pots, smoke blowers, cables and wires and opaque paint.
The pemberthy siphon he used when Kramer wanted a speeding automobile driven by Mickey Rooney, to kick up an outrageous cloud of dust. Buckets of Fuller's earth were placed out of sight on the framework of the car and the siphon, energized by air, creating a monumental sandstorm. Squibs are minute but powerful explosive charges formulated of diazo powder and fulminate of mercury which are fired electrically to release a squib hook. Just right for blowing limbs off trees while actors are hanging on them. A popping match is a sort of fuse which emits a spray at regular intervals as it burns. Just the thing for the slow blasting apart of an airport tower's radio panels. Opaque paint is one of the most precious of assets; people and things which the camera catches floating through the air have to be on wires and cables. The illusion would be destroyed if the supports could be seen. But coated with the special paint they are invisible.
"There were times," Lee recalled, "when maybe things got a little fouled up, that we considered daubing ourselves with it."
Of all the challenges to their ingenuity Lee and his crew were proudest of the Rube-Goldberg they contrived to run Durante's car off the cliff. It was a radio-controlled automatic pilot put together with bits and pieces of electronic equipment they had acquired from the laboratories of the California Institute of Technology and nearby aerospace plants. When the time came for shooting the sequence Lee stood on a hillside a mile away from the car, started it, steered it, slowed it for curves, then sped it at 80 miles an hour off the highway.
However, Lee felt that the dust cloud created for Rooney probably enhanced his reputation with the Kramer company more than all the really difficult effects achieved. For after the scenes had been completed Kramer told him:
"Danny, if I ever make a Dust Bowl picture, you're my man."
Around the Hollywood headquarters of The Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures, Kramer's film was known as It's a Wonderful, Wonderful, Wonderful, Wonderful Bonanza. In seven-and-a-half months 34 of the organization's 89 members split, by varying percentages, a total of $252,000 for their hair-raising heart-stopping work in its production.
Stuntmen were as requisite to violent-action movie-making as cameras. It is not because stars and featured players lacked courage; many were fine athletes and quite willing to undertake dangerous assignments. But the underwriters who insure motion picture production against disaster would not countenance it. A movie might be half-finished, they hold, and the star breaks his neck. This, they pointed out, would not be good. Too costly for one thing.
In the case of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World it could have happened to any of its stars!
"You name a stunt - we did it," said Carey Loftin, chief of the production's daredevil crew. "In airplanes, automobiles, tractors, trucks, fire engines; high dives, low dives, dives through plate glass windows; fisticuffs, fireworks; falls from fire escapes, ladders, palm trees and building tops."
Stuntmen, Loftin said, had a simple rule of thumb for accepting an assignment: "If we figure we can walk away from it, and do an immediate repeat, we'll take the job."
To achieve certain extraordinary effects in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Stanley Kramer relied on the skill and wizardry of Linwood G. Dunn, head of Film Effects of Hollywood. Acknowledged to be without peer in his field, Dunn was one of the unsung heroes of Hollywood. Film effects, as distinguished from special effects in which difficult feats are made easy, helped create illusions that would not otherwise have been possible. In the case of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for example, this consisted of creating ingenious paintings and mock-ups to permit matching of scenes shot in part elsewhere but which had to be completed within the confines of the studio under controlled conditions.
Dunn's firm was made up by a variety of artisans of cinematic black magic. With paint brush and scale model they could baffle even the most discerning critic. To accomplish these ends, Dunn had pioneered many technical devices, including special camera mounts and lenses and had adapted existing equipment to such an extent that the originator would hardly recognize their own brain-child.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World posed as a special problem for Dunn since the Cinerama screen, due to its vastness, was much more harshly revealing than any other. But even the most trained observer, after eyeing the film effects footage, was unable to distinguish between what was real and the reel - this was indeed a great tribute to the craftsmanship and imagination of Linwood Dunn and his crew.